Hello, Happy 2018! I thought I’d start the year by telling you all the story of my first year as a flower farmer.
It all started two years ago when I had to make a decision on a career change. This started me on the path to becoming a florist. I loved creating wild looking bouquets with that just picked from the garden feel. But I had huge reservations about the imported flowers that were available. Unseasonal, poker straight stems all uniform and with no scent. Pretty uninspiring.
It wasn’t long after my training that I came across an article about Green and Gorgeous and their wonderful flower farm. I just had to go and see it for myself, so I booked a place for my hubs and I on a days cut flower course. It was the best thing I ever did and gave me the confidence to start A Bunch Of Wild.
So, at the beginning of last year I set about finding some land in which to grow my flowers. Our garden is a fairly decent size, but it is our garden and I wanted a dedicated space. It was really tricky trying to find somewhere. There are lots of different laws attached to land and you can’t just start a flower farm on land that has an order attached to it. It was a huge stumbling block, I was offered an amazing plot of land just under an acre, but it turned out that I could only use it as what’s called gardening land. This meant I couldn’t sell my produce. I was beginning to despair and had to give myself a good talking to. I’d originally threw out the idea of an allotment as a few years back I’d had one, there was a contract stating you couldn’t sell anything you had grown. I had assumed that all allotments had this rule, but in the end I decided to do further research. Again, it is an old law that meant people who worked allotments were not supposed to profit from their plot, it was a way for the poor to provide for their families. This law has since lapsed on many allotments now, and after much looking I managed to find an allotment in the next village I could use to grow my flowers.
Now for the fun part!
All I knew was that I wanted to grow flowers. At this point I didn’t really know who I was going to sell them to, that came later. I didn’t even have a master plan. My plot was overgrown and covered in bindweed but at least I’d inherited a shed to take tea breaks in when I needed shelter from the snow.
I started digging and clearing in winter and didn’t see a single soul for weeks apart from a black bird that happily came to hoover up worms. When I finally did see people they were very dubious of the mad girl digging in the rain. But gradually one by one they came and introduced themselves, scratched their heads when I told them I was going to grow flowers and seemed pleasantly amused. I had something to prove now for it was obvious I was being observed and needed to earn my place.
Come August I knew I’d finally made it as an allotment grower when Larry, Dave and Steve my new found buddies marvelled at my plot brimming with dahlias, cosmos and sweet peas. Steve even offered to give my shed a makeover and when rain failed us he filled my water butt up from his own supply (he’s got lots). Dave gave me manure from his horses and Larry leant me the right tools for digging in clay. They all stood around my dahlia bed marvelling at the size and beauty of the cafe au laits. I can highly recommend anyone starting out as a flower farmer to get an allotment. The support network from other like minded individuals is the thing I love most when working on my flower plot.
Rewind a bit, I’d already planted lots of spring bulbs in my garden before Christmas 2016 as I knew I wanted to start this venture in the new year. I was glad I had, as my flower plot is heavy clay and I would never want to plant such a huge investment in bulbs into something that sits incredibly wet at least 5 months of the year.
Come March I’d got a greenhouse full of hardy annuals, had cleared my plot and had the most beautiful spring bulbs coming up. It was time to figure out what I wanted to do next. As I said, I didn’t have a master plan and have spent quite a lot of my first year winging it. I sat down one morning and wrote a list of all the different types of people I thought would like my flowers. Then I made a list of all the people I could potentially sell them to, for example: florists and brides, and put the feelers out through my blog. I quickly got response from both florists and brides but hit a stumbling block when they asked for specific colours and types in certain months. That wasn’t and still isn’t what we’re about, and I became strangely possessive over my flowers, I wanted to make sure that the hands they were falling into understood them. I quickly learned that there are a lot of people out there that want to learn about our British flowers and the changing seasons. I needed to do research, educate and I needed to put myself out there! And the way to do that was farmers markets. I booked my first one early spring at Hitchin farmers market. I remember not having quite as many flowers as I’d of liked so I went out foraging all the week before for blackthorn blossom. This went down a treat and looked gorgeous, very A Bunch Of Wild. Doing the farmers market was great but it wasn’t without its pitfalls. It wasn’t close to home and I remember driving through country lanes with the car full of props and flowers wondering if they were going to get there in one piece, I needed to find another way.
Pop-ups seemed like the obvious answer. Lucky for me I managed to track down a lovely lady who gave me a spot to try at the weekly market in the next village. When she came to see me at my stall for inspection she quickly came up with the idea of putting my little flower stall in the spotlight, in a prime location and on a Saturday. We gave it a try and I was blown away by how many lovely people came to not just buy our flowers but chat about gardening. Children dragged parents over and asked what all of the names of the flowers were and workmen stopped to buy their girlfriend/wife something special. This was the moment I realised I’d done it. I was happy! It’s that connection with the people who come to talk and enjoy everything floral. British flowers make people smile. We had our comedy moments like my husband having to hold on to our first rather light weight gazebo when one of our named storms hit, I forget which one. We then tried a parasol in the summer for shade but that also took off down the high street. In the end I went all out and bought a commercial gazebo which has been my best investment so far.
From this I went on to supply a couple of stores, one of which fitted my look perfectly and they really took off, it’s the beautiful home store Minchin and May in Woburn. It worked there because of many reasons, the shop decor complimented my flowers and vice versa, there are no other florists in the village and their customers are the kind of people who like something a little different when it comes to flowers. The other was a learning curve as it was where I had my stall and by a waitrose, it was a shame but it was great to get feedback and I realised that people wanted to still visit my stall and get them directly from me. This is when I realised A Bunch Of Wild was a brand and my face was part of it. My packaging was picked because it was low cost, recyclable and very plain to let the flowers do the talking, it’s no frills but just works. Jam jars are brought back and reused and sometimes so are the box bags. People wanted the flowers in the beautifully plain packaging and they wanted to chat to me about them, you just can’t beat this feeling, it’s top of the world!
After a little while I was getting asked questions from florists and other flower growers so I offered mentoring from my home in the summer which I really enjoyed. I was so stretched for time though and that is something I need to work on in 2018. My hubby helps out loads but it is still mainly just me. What with putting on workshops as well as my stall and tending to the plot, I was suddenly stretched too thin. Also being a bit of an introvert, the large workshops didn’t do it for me, I now put on small intimate floral gatherings. It’s all a learning curve. For me the best bit is growing something that you would find in an old English country garden, then creating something magical with movement, structure and scent. Seeing the pleasure on people’s faces when they see our flowers is something I will never tire of.
I quickly booked A Bunch Of Wild a permanent pitch in Ampthill and printed out the list of dates for all our customers. We now have a regular client base which is lovely! From this the natural progression took us to taking orders which people come and collect from our home. I’ve let the whole business grow like the flowers, they dictated the direction in which I have taken so far. Not having a plan has worked for me so far but I’m not getting complacent. And there have been moments I should of perhaps been more prepared for, but hey, it’s my first year and I’m learning on the job.
Social media has helped my business no end. Being able to let my customers know what I’m growing and where I’m selling is key. But also the support network from fellow flower farmers is huge. I’m part of the network Flowers From The Farm, which is a thriving community of flower farmers, seasonal florists and farmer florists like me. We check in on each other on Instagram and they hold meetings where we can all get together and order things in bulk. We regularly attend garden shows and open gardens, and of course I walk over the fields and through the woods to get my biggest inspiration.
Because of my relatively small plot I’ve found myself foraging in the woods and hedgerows for foliage and interesting things I can put into my arrangements. I enjoy this just as much as growing the flowers. It also means my plot is just dedicated to blooms. Last year saw me plant lots of annuals, this year I’m concentrating more on perennial beds, a bigger outlay but a long term investment. My plot is heavy clay and very hard going, but in the summer when a heat wave comes it is amazing! Providing everything is well established of course. You see the surface goes rock hard, you struggle to break it, but this means that underneath the water is stored and the temperature perfect. I didn’t have to water my dahlias once after they had settled in. My soil type is also the main reason for planting another perennial bed and a rose bed. Planting these things will be lower maintenance, will need less water and push out weeds. It also saves me space and time by only concentrating on growing the annuals I really love.
I grew pretty much everything I could get my hands on as I was so excited. In hindsight I went a bit overboard but now I know what I truly love to work with so it’s not all bad. My favourite staples are snapdragons, cosmos, dahlias, cornflowers, larkspur, ammi, foxgloves and roses, oh I nearly forgot and scabious. Something I’m growing more of this year are flowers for their seed heads. It’s been a wonderful first year experimenting and learning.
Its a prickly job.
And it can be flipping freezing.
But it’s all been worth it!
Flower farming is probably the most satisfying job I’ve ever had, I’m not sure i’ll ever be rich doing it, but I do it for the love of flowers and our British seasons. This year I’m looking at diversifying my business and adding to it, plus working on my time management. I’m looking forward to slowly growing A Bunch Of Wild and enjoying the adventures it takes me on. Can’t wait to see how 2018 goes.